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Delirium Tremens: Your Guide to Risk Factors and Treatment for DTs

Giving up alcohol is incredibly difficult, but it can also be dangerous for people with a history of alcohol abuse. People who drink heavily are at risk for a condition called delirium tremens, or DTs.

Before you quit drinking, it’s important to know the symptoms and risk factors of DTs so you can protect yourself from potentially life-threatening outcomes.

What are delirium tremens from alcohol?

Delirium tremens is a medical condition associated with withdrawal from alcohol. It causes the patient to have hallucinations and seizures and can result in death if not treated immediately.

The term “delirium tremens” or DTs refers to a set of symptoms that includes disorientation, confusion, anxiety, agitation, shaking, visual and/or auditory hallucinations, cocaine-like tactile symptoms (formication), nausea, vomiting, and fever.

DTs are associated with severe complications when quitting alcohol use is either abrupt or prolonged.

The DTs usually appear when the patient’s blood alcohol level falls below 0.06%, which can happen during the first two days after stopping alcohol consumption.

It is a result of severe withdrawal from alcohol which can turn fatal if it is not properly treated.

What are the symptoms of delirium tremens?

Delirium tremens can result in a multitude of symptoms that range from mild to severe. Symptoms include:

– Seizures

– Visual hallucinations

– Tactile hallucinations, where patients feel something crawling under their skin

– Disturbed sleep patterns causing insomnia for more than three days

– Restlessness or constant waking

– Confusion, agitation, irritability

– Anxiety

– Fits of rage or fear

– Grand mal seizures, which are characterized by loss of consciousness and violent muscle contractions on both sides of the body.

These symptoms are serious. Contact your doctor immediately if you experience them after stopping alcohol.

empty hospital bed and room
Recognizing the symptoms of delirium tremens.

What are the risk factors of DTs?

There are many risk factors for DTs, including :

  • Alcohol dependence
  • Chronic alcoholism
  • Abrupt withdrawal from alcohol consumption
  • Severe electrolyte imbalances
  • Concurrent use of sedatives, anxiolytics, and/or hypnotics
  • Old age
  • Underlying health issues like liver disease or traumatic brain injury
  • Having a psychiatric disorder
  • Poor diet

Source: https://americanaddictioncenters.org/alcoholism-treatment/delirium-tremens-symptoms-and-treatment

Who is most likely to get delirium tremens?

Patients who have a history of severe alcohol withdrawal are most at risk for DTs. In addition, those patients who experience severe or prolonged withdrawal symptoms have a greater risk for developing delirium tremens as do those with alcoholic cirrhosis and those who have been drinking heavily for several years.

It is important to note that the risk for developing DTs remains whether or not withdrawal symptoms are apparent.

Again, delirium tremens can be fatal if the patient does not receive treatment immediately.

With early treatment, the mortality rate [of DTs] has decreased to less than 5%.

Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482134/

What are the common treatments for delirium tremens?

Delirium tremens is treated in several steps including:

1. Administration of benzodiazepines to stop seizures and relieve agitation (diazepam or chlordiazepoxide, typically lasting four to seven days).

2. Soothing and monitoring of the patient, and

3. Treatment for alcohol withdrawal symptoms, such as thiamine supplementation and intravenous fluids.

The prognosis for patients has improved over the past several decades thanks to treatment using benzodiazepines and other medications.

Patients who seek help after the development of delirium tremens usually recover, especially if they receive treatment immediately.

However, those who go too long without proper treatment may experience severe complications and even death.

How many years do you have to drink to get DTs?

There’s no definitive number of years of drinking that determine whether you will experience DTs if you quit drinking.

Again, it boils down to risk factors. People with a history of severe withdrawal symptoms or having gone through withdrawal in the past are more likely to experience DTs. Additionally, genetic factors, your medical history, and alcohol consumption all contribute to your risk.

Even if you have not experienced delirium tremens before but you have had serious alcohol use, it is advised to seek medical help immediately if you decide to stop drinking. This way, you can receive medical supervision and care as you detox from alcohol.

Are delerium tremens reversible?

Delirium tremens are reversible if treatment begins right away. However, without proper care and supervision, the patient may risk death due to decreased respiration rate or cardiac arrest.

If you or someone you know has experienced delirium tremens, take them to the emergency room immediately.

Bottom Line: Take DTs seriously.

Delirium tremens is nothing to play with. It is easy to be in denial about the severity of our drinking. This leads many people to try to tough it out or detox from alcohol at home without any medical assistance.

But doing so comes at great risk. If you have risk factors for DTs or experience any symptoms of DTs after quitting, seek medical attention immediately. It can save your life.

Access should not be a barrier to help.

Soberish is proudly sponsored by BetterHelp. If you have tried (and failed) to find a therapist who has the knowledge and background to help you navigate your specific issues, try BetterHelp. Learn more about my counseling journey with BetterHelp or visit their website below.

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